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CLASSICS: Return to Oz (1985)

August 29, 2020



written by: Walter Murch & Gill Dennis (screenplay), L. Frank Baum (novels)
produced by: Paul Maslansky
directed by: Walter Murch
rated: PG 
runtime: 113 min.
U. S. release date: June 21, 1985 (now streaming on Disney+)


“The king mentioned a risk… what is it that we are risking?”


Disney’s strange risk-taking period of the early-to-mid 80s produced a lot of rather dark and expensive children’s entertainment. They’ve obviously emerged from these literal dark ages to be an entertainment juggernaut, home to the absolute most field-tested, audience-approved, triple-quality-checked children’s entertainment imaginable. 1985’s live action “Return to Oz” is the opposite of this in nearly every way possible.

The first live action trip to the land of Oz in 46 years, “Return to Oz” opens six months after Dorothy’s first trip to that enchanted land and she’s been in a mental funk ever since. Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) decide to bring her to a cutting edge hospital for treatment, but she escapes and ends up back in Oz. Here she finds the once vibrant land in ruins, runs afoul of several villains angling to take over the place, and teams up with a new group of misfits to try to get back home to Kansas.




Gone is the chubby cheeked, brown eyed teenaged Dorothy of 1939, replaced by the haunted pale blue eyes and gaunt face of ten-year-old Fairuza Balk. Heck, even Toto is a slightly different breed of terrier—a Border Terrier compared to the original film’s Cairn Terrier. It’s obvious, quite quickly, that this isn’t a sequel to “The Wizard of Oz” the film. Instead, it’s a new film with a drastically different cast in almost every regard, that relies on the audience’s familiarity with the characters and story of that classic film.

Basically, all of this is director Walter Murch and company’s way of telling the audience to prepare for a new take on a familiar story and characters. Yes, it helps to remember things like how the Wizard left Scarecrow (Justin Case) in charge before taking off for who-knows-where at the end of the original film, but it’s not essential to one’s enjoyment of this film.

A hallmark of the original film is the double casting of characters in the real world as major denizens of Oz, and Murch continues the tradition here. While this allows the heroic girl (Emma Ridley) who rescues Dorothy from the hospital at the beginning of the film to be the equally heroic Princess Ozma, it’s mostly a way to let the villains pull double duty in the same way Margaret Hamilton did in 1939. Otherwise distinguished Brits Nicol Williamson and Jean Marsh get to ham it up twice as villainous hospital personnel in Kansas and evil royalty in Oz—though to be fair, Williamson’s Nome King is more like The Wizard than an outright villain.




Part of the original film’s legacy is the terror its imagery instilled in generations of audiences, from the eerie flying monkeys to that wicked old witch, and this film embraces that legacy. In fact, its Gilded Age proto-steampunk imagery is even more terrifying than anything conjured up by the original nearly fifty years prior.

In fact, “Return to Oz” more or less has a steampunk take on that fabled land over the rainbow. Everything from the villainous Wheelers to the Tin Man surrogate Tik Tok (Michael Sundin) is right in line with the entire steampunk aesthetic. This is likely a byproduct of Murch and his design team having grown up with Jules Verne and his tales of mechanical marvels at the turn of the last century.

However, this also helps add a timeless quality to this film that its predecessor certainly possesses—apart from, perhaps, the Tin Man (Deep Roy) and Scarecrow’s 1930s finishing school accents. There’s something tangible about practical effects on film and even though some of the green screen work in this film looks terribly dated, the care, love, and attention put into the film’s puppetry and effects is a major asset.

With all the care the filmmakers have taken to establish this as a world apart from MGM’s original, it’s odd that they would shell out money to use that film’s ruby slippers—changed from the original book’s silver. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, more of a musing or an observation. It doesn’t make much sense, but in retrospect, one can easily imagine a Disney exec at the time demanding to know why there weren’t ruby slippers in the script.




“Return to Oz” is a vintage 80s children’s film in the vein of “The Dark Crystal,” “The Neverending Story,” and even Disney’s own “The Black Cauldron” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” It’s almost more a rite of passage, a film for parents who grew up traumatized by it to now use it to traumatize their own children. The behind-the-scenes story of the film is almost more interesting than the film itself, which makes the film’s lack of special features on the Blu-ray all the more disappointing.

However, this is the Disney way, bury the bad publicity and just ignore it until the controversy goes away. This era at the Mouse House has been well documented, thankfully, so the stories of Walter Murch being fired and then rehired at the behest of pals Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas. However, none of that is in “Return to Oz” and when separated from the controversy surrounding it, it’s nowhere near as interesting a film as the story of what it took to get made in the first place.

Ultimately, “Return to Oz” is not a sequel to “The Wizard of Oz” as much as Disney’s marketing machine would have you believe. It’s a perfectly serviceable companion piece that feels (much like that original film) like it was made without a consideration in the world for the fragile psyches of any children destined to watch it. As such, it is a curiosity more than it is essential viewing, but some of people’s favorite films are just such curiosities. It’s a film to admire more than enjoy, but don’t be surprised to hear someone say it’s their favorite film.






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